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Ask Umbra: Can I rest easy eating organic beef?

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Q. I always buy organically raised beef, when I do buy beef. I read that ground beef you get is a mixture of beef from different animals. How do I know the beef I am getting is, in fact, organically grown? Could it be mixed with other feedlot beef? Also, when it comes to processing the animal, how are the organically raised cows treated? Any better or different than if they were just regular cows?

Suzy P.
Denver, CO

A. Dearest Suzy,

When I got your letter, I imagined you reading it aloud in with a suave accent: “I don’t always eat beef. But when I do, I prefer organic.” And well that you do: There are important differences between the lives -- if not the deaths -- of organically raised cattle and their conventional, feedlot-bound siblings.

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Ask Umbra: How much is my firewood polluting the air?

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Q. How do I measure wood smoke from firewood?  We want to do a comparison of different firewoods and find the one that has the least smoke emissions, provides the most heat, and burns the longest. We would like to really measure the smoke. Any ideas?

Patricia S.
Scotts Valley, Calif.

A. Dearest Patricia,

If you listen carefully this time of year, you can almost hear it: the crackling of thousands of wood stoves firing up for a season of home heating. Unfortunately, the cozy glowing of all those stoves has a serious downside: a smoky, sooty smudge on local air quality.

Wood smoke emits all kinds of nasties [PDF], including benzene and formaldehyde, but the primary culprit is particulate matter (PM2.5), a mix of tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled and wreak all kinds of havoc. The stuff is linked to respiratory illness, chronic lung problems, cancer, and premature death -- so your desire to find the cleanest-burning logs possible is a vote for both air quality and personal health for you and your neighbors.

I admire the citizen-scientist pluck behind your wish to analyze and compare different types of wood smoke yourself, Patricia. Unfortunately, this is currently pretty tough to do unless you A) are an atmospheric scientist with access to sophisticated sampling tools, or B) have an extra $10,000 to $50,000 lying around to spend on said tools. I checked with Matthew Harper, air monitoring lead for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. He said you could use a handheld particle counter, the cheapest of which will run you a mere $300 to $500, but these devices probably aren’t accurate enough to distinguish the nuances between, say, hickory versus oak smoke.

But don’t hang up your lab coat just yet: There are still a few worthwhile experiments to be done.

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Ask Umbra: What do I do with my worn-out sponges?

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Q. I wash dishes all the time, and those yellow and green sponges will only last a few weeks at most. I don't know what they're made of, so I don't know in which bin to throw them or how to reuse them. Can I make a recycled mattress or couch with a thousand used sponges? Is there any charity or artist that collects old sponges? Is there a good, affordable, practical, and eco-friendly alternative?

Arne P.
Calgary, Alberta

A. Dearest Arne,

Sponges truly are the multitaskers of the cleaning crew. Not only are they scrubbing our dishes, they’re also busy wiping counters, washing cars, applying makeup, brightening windows, and exfoliating our skin in the shower – and this week, likely pulling overtime sudsing the stuffing off your company platters. It doesn’t seem right to reward such service with a one-way ticket to the trash, but unfortunately, that’s exactly where many sponges are bound.

Your typical grocery-store kitchen sponge is made from polyurethane, a petroleum-based material that can’t be recycled or composted. Even worse, some sponges billing themselves as antibacterial are soaked with triclosan, that ever-plaguing chemical linked with liver and thyroid issues and toxic to aquatic life.

Luckily, there are easy alternatives.

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Ask Umbra: Are they going to lock me up for reusing my washwater?

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Q. I'm considering moving to a state where gray water recycling isn't legal (somewhere in the Midwest). I'd like to hook up a laundry gray water system when I get there. Of course, I'd follow all the best management practices as defined by the states where gray water is legal.

But if I'm caught, what can they do to me? It's not like I'm going to be arrested and sent to jail for using gray water, right? I'm hooked on gray water and just can't stop using it.

Jude M.
Highlands Ranch, Colo.

A. Dearest Jude,

I’m glad you’re ready to talk about your gray water habit. Admitting that you’re hooked is the first step toward solving the problem. But in your case, the problem isn’t so much with you as it is with the country’s widely varying water reuse regulations.

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Ask Umbra: Are my newfangled lightbulbs making my house cold?

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Q. I've started seeing an argument against low-consumption lightbulbs. Could you help me determine if it’s true or false? The reasoning goes like this: Incandescent lightbulbs use more power to emit light, and the extra energy dissipates as heat while on. If we switch to compact fluorescents, (CFLs), we won't have that source of heat anymore, so in the winter we'll have to turn the heat up in our houses, thus using more power! CFLs are really making us use more power overall!

I think this line of reasoning is wrong, for a lot of reasons. Would you have any information on it?

Thanks a lot,
Hugo

A. Dearest Hugo,

You’ve lit on a persistent rumor in the halls of Lightbulb High. Look at those CFLs over there, thinking they’re so perfect! Well, I heard that efficient light of theirs is actually increasing emissions and electric bills in winter. What a bunch of poseurs.

And like any schoolhouse rumor, this one should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Ask Umbra: Ack. There are stickers all over my fruit!

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Q. We eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and generate a lot of compost. Unfortunately we find in it lots of annoying non-biodegradable little stickers, usually with a code number. Is there any attempt to require them to be biodegradable?

Harvey
New Jersey

A. Dearest Harvey,

It’s a funny world, isn’t it? Here you are striving for a healthy, produce-heavy diet (kudos on that, by the way), but your earth-friendly ways come with a slowly accumulating mountain of sticky waste. Fruit PLU labels (for “price look-up”) may seem like a small thing in the grand scheme of world problems, but even little things add up -- and if we can do better, hey, why wouldn’t we?

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Ask Umbra: What do I do with all these dead batteries?

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Send your question to Umbra! Q. Do you know of any chain retail stores that offer recycling for alkaline batteries? Or is there a better way to dispose of them than just tossing them into the trash? We are trying to be more conscientious about the final resting place of our "dead" double-A's. Walt Asheville, N.C. A. Dearest Walt, Given the timing of your letter, I can’t help but wonder if you’ve got children, and you’re nervously anticipating a holiday season filled with battery-operated toy robots, electronic guitars, and other beeping, flashing amusements. (Gift-givers everywhere: Whatever happened to a nice …

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Ask Umbra: Is my shampoo poisoning the planet?

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Send your question to Umbra! Q. My daughter is looking for a shampoo that is both environmentally responsible AND leaves her hair feeling clean (my cupboard is full of products I'm finishing up because she's rejected them). Short of getting a chemistry degree, how do we know what's environmentally best? Elmie S. Penticton, BC A. Dearest Elmie, Before we dig into the problem of your overflowing shampoo cupboard, let me first congratulate you on raising the kind of daughter who cares if her hair-care regimen ends up polluting waterways and mutating local fish. The children are our future, as the …

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Ask Umbra: Can I line-dry my clothes in the winter, too?

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Q. I saved a noticeable amount of energy this summer by hanging out my clothes to dry. Can I continue to do this over the colder months?

Colleen H.
Chicago, Ill.

A. Dearest Colleen,

Does anything have a higher reward-to-effort ratio than a clothesline? For the cost of a simple rope and a handful of clothespins, plus a few minutes per laundry load, you get a discount on your electric bill (up to $25 per month, according to advocacy group Project Laundry List), a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (residential dryers are responsible for 32 million metric tons of CO2 per year), and that delightful, fresh-air scent of line-dried skivvies. I don’t blame you for wanting to keep that going as the mercury dips.

Unfortunately, many people equate clotheslines with their white shoes – a summer-only item to be retired after Labor Day. But you don’t have to rely solely on the clothes dryer this winter. Cold-season air-drying takes a little more thought, but it’s definitely possible.

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Ask Umbra: What are “natural flavors” anyway?

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Justin McGregor

Send your question to Umbra! Q. I've been trying to eliminate preservatives and other food additives from my diet. Upon becoming more label aware, I've been shocked to discover how many foods contain "natural flavor.” Even butter contains it! I'm suspicious of how natural this flavor actually is! Do you have the scoop on natural flavor additives? Yours truly, Lindsay F. Seattle, WA A. Dearest Lindsay, Your question reminds me of one of my favorite old love songs, the one that goes “A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and butter is just cream that’s …

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